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Proposal would redirect fire company funding

Fire and rescue association chief bristles at idea of county taking over distribution

October 03, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • The Washington County Board of Commissioners, four state legislators and fire and rescue officials discuss the distribution of county gaming fund revenue to volunteer fire and rescue companies during a Sept. 20 meeting.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

In an effort to raise accountability and increase the amount of gaming fund money reaching fire and rescue companies, Washington County staff have drafted a written proposal for the county to assume control of that distribution.

Under the proposal, which was distributed to the fire and rescue community last week, the 50 percent of tip-jar gaming revenue that currently goes to the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association would instead be deposited in a county account.

The county would use some of the funds to administer programs currently run by the association, then distribute the rest to volunteer companies that have met financial and operational reporting requirements, the proposal says.

The idea was met with scorn by the association’s president, and some members of the Washington County Board of Commissioners distanced themselves from the idea, which they said came from county staff and has not been endorsed by the board. Two commissioners offered other ideas.

Washington County Emergency Services Director Kevin L. Lewis said he worked with County Administrator Gregory B. Murray and staff from the gaming and budget and finance offices to draft the proposal, which Lewis emailed to association officials on Sept. 25.

The email was sent as The Herald-Mail prepared to publish an investigative series on fire and rescue company finances. It followed a Sept. 20 meeting between state legislators, the county commissioners and the association at which legislators criticized the association for retaining too much of the gaming revenue and asked association members to discuss their preferred way to address the issue.

Lewis said he distributed the county staff proposal for association members to consider as they decide how to respond to the state legislators’ directive.

The proposal notes that, as currently written, the state law governing gaming revenue in Washington County does not require the association to share its allocation with individual fire and rescue companies, and it does not give the county the authority to impose any restrictions or accountability standards on the association.

The proposed change, which would require state legislation, would give the county the authority to withhold gaming funds from companies that do not comply with reporting requirements.

The proposal says individual fire and rescue companies would see an increase in their allocations as a result of the changes. Currently, association tax returns indicate the association has been withholding about 20 percent of its portion of the gaming fund allocation per year, while the proposal suggests the county could withhold as little as 5 percent, increasing the amount available for distribution to the companies.

The proposal notes that, without gaming fund revenue, it is unlikely that the association would be able to continue to provide its fire police, training, photo team, rehab unit, and fit-for-duty physical programs, so the county might be required to cover the cost of those programs.

The association would continue to exist, focused mainly on strategic issues such as setting legislative agendas and funded through contributions from member companies, Lewis said.

Asked for the association’s response to the proposal on Sept. 29, association President Glenn Fishack summed up his view in one word: “Bullshit.”

Fishack said the county would be unable to run the programs the association provides on 5 percent of the gaming fund distribution. Based on recent years’ figures, 5 percent would be about $50,000 a year.

“(Lewis) can’t even begin to do anything” with that amount of money, Fishack said.

The county staff proposal notes that past tax returns show the association’s average program expenditures are $107,556 per year.

Lewis said the county might be able to provide the same programs at a lower cost by capitalizing on current county contracts and using existing county employees to administer some of the programs.

However, Lewis acknowledged that costs might exceed the 5 percent figure, in which case the county would have to discuss whether to incorporate the rest of the cost into the Division of Emergency Services operating budget.

Fishack said association members at a Sept. 28 association meeting seemed generally opposed to the proposal.

As an alternative, Fishack said he would be willing to discuss changing the amount of gaming funds the association withholds for savings.

“How much money do they want us to save?” he asked on Sept. 29. “Maybe they don’t want us to save any money ... if not, let’s give it back to all the companies. Just tell us what they want; don’t beat around the bush.”

Taking the issue to the General Assembly would mean risking losing the gaming fund revenue altogether, Fishack said.

Greg Yost, Hancock Volunteer Fire Co. chief and chairman of the association’s Chief Officers Committee, was more open to the proposal.

“It definitely is a good starting point to talk about,” he said.

Yost, who has organized a slate of candidates for the association’s upcoming officer elections, said he didn’t mind the idea of the county taking over many of the association’s current functions, as long as input from the association is considered.

“As far as I’m really concerned, the county should be providing physicals for firefighters and some other mandatory maintenance items and things like that,” Yost said.

However, he said he was concerned that the county might one day attempt to use gaming money to pay for items that are currently part of the operating budget and said he would want a guarantee that shift would not happen.

Yost was also skeptical about the county’s ability to fund the programs on only 5 percent of the gaming distribution.

“I know (Division of Emergency Services) ... could not take on all of those programs without some increase in personnel,” Yost said.

If some of the program costs must come from the Division of Emergency Services operating budget, “I don’t know where that money’s going to come from, ’cause I know nobody wants to talk about a fire tax,” Yost said.

Contacted Sept. 30 about the proposal, some of the county commissioners said they had not seen the proposal document, while others said they had seen draft notes from Murray.

Commissioner John F. Barr said Monday his initial thought was to disburse the gaming funds directly to the volunteer companies and leave it up to them to contribute to the association to cover program costs. However, Barr said he was not opposed to the idea of putting the county budget and finance department in charge of the funds.

“I think the association’s kind of brought this on themselves, with the hierarchy and the secretiveness of the fire and rescue association and the expensive vehicles they’re riding around in,” Barr said.

“I know what kind of a tight ship operation Debra Murray and her staff run at budget and finance, and if you don’t submit the proper forms, you don’t submit full disclosure, they just cut you off; you’re done,” Barr said. “So, once and for all, this will help clean up a lot of the ambiguities in some of the fire companies, and certainly the association.”

Commissioner William B. McKinley said he supports the idea of reducing the percentage of gaming funds being withheld from the companies, but does not like the idea of the county handling that money.

“I like government to be as small as possible, and I hate to see the responsibilities and also the handling of money grow,” McKinley said.

He said his suggestion would be for the volunteer companies to elect a committee, such as five company chiefs, to administer the 5 percent of funds that could be withheld from the gaming distribution.

Other commissioners did not take a stance on whether the county should take over the funding distribution or the administration of programs currently provided by the association.

“In my mind, there is no plan in front of the commissioners, so it would be imprudent for me to comment on anything specifically,” said Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, who would say only that it was clear the lines of communication between the county and the association are broken and need to be repaired.

Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said he thought the funding system needed to be more transparent and efficient, but would like to hear the association members’ recommendation for addressing the problem before endorsing a course of action.

“I sure would like to see what the people putting out the fires think is best, because they’re on the front lines; they know what they need,” Cline said.

Commissioners President Terry Baker said he did not want to comment without seeing the proposal.

Staff writer Arnold Platou contributed to this story.

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